Best Hi-Fi Products 2019 - Editor's Choice Awards

Meet the best of the best

by Ed Selley
Welcome to our third annual Editor's Choice Awards. The Editor's Choice Awards celebrate the best products of the year. They are the items we think stand head and shoulders above the rest. The criteria for being eligible are simple. It must be a product that has been reviewed by AVForums in the last 12 months and it must currently be available as part of the official product range from a manufacturer and not discontinued before the end of 2019.

This year we present the awards for TVs & Projectors, Home AV, Hi-Fi and Mobile. In this article, we select our favourite products of the year in Hi-Fi:

Best Hi-Fi Speaker Under £1,000 2019 – Polk S15e

The Polk is a two way standmount speaker - at £250 you should not really expect anything else. There are some interesting details to both drivers though. The tweeter is apparently rated to 40kHz and the speaker features certification from the High Res Society as a result. The mid bass driver uses a butyl rubber surround and ceramic motor components. This is hardly the stuff of science fiction but it is a little more advanced than might normally be the case for a speaker at this price. The most interesting aspect of the oily bits of the Polk isn't in the cabinet proper though. At the back is a plastic structure that Polk calls the Power Port. This sits directly opposite the rear bass port and has a tapered cone that serves to direct and control the airflow. Polk claims that this has the benefit of deeper, tighter bass, which may or may not be achieved but on a practical level it does two other things. The first is that the back of the Power Port is the limit of the space that Polk feels is needed for the bass port which means that the S15e can be placed without too much concern as to what is happening behind it, while the second is that it easily allows for wall mounting.

The Polk arrives in this category looking a little bit ungainly but still bringing some excellent new attributes to the class. The S15e sounds truly outstanding and, just as importantly, it does so on a huge variety of partnering equipment even when placed in locations that would significantly impede the performance of many of its rivals. The S15e doesn't complete the demolition job on this category that the Command Bar does to win its award but it is comfortably the best affordable speaker we've looked at this year.

Best Hi-Fi Speaker £1,000-2,000 2019 – Monitor Audio Gold 100

The Gold 100 is the smallest stereo member of the fifth generation of Monitor Audio's long running Gold series of speakers. It is a rear ported model and makes use of the latest iterations of the company's CPC mid bass driver and seriously complex MPD tweeter. Even at £1,600, most Gold 100s are going to wind up being used in lounges and other 'public' rooms and very few rivals can match it for feeling and behaving like furniture. Appearance should always be a secondary consideration when choosing speakers but it would foolish to pretend it doesn't matter and Monitor Audio has done a superb job with the Gold series.

They've done an even better job with how it sounds though. This is a fantastically detailed performer, anxious to tell you everything about what is happening in a recording but doing so in a way that is constructive to the overall presentation rather than a slightly joyless forensic undressing of everything. This is at least 85% of the performance of the PL100 II for a whisker over 50% of the price. That, by anyone's standards, is very, very good going. The result is the best speaker under £2,000 of 2019.

Best Hi-Fi Speaker Over £2,000 2019 Focal Kanta No1

The Focal Kanta No1 is a two way standmount speaker. It has elements of both Aria and Utopia in its design and is the most affordable Focal stereo speaker to feature a beryllium dome which combines with a Flax fibre cone that is evolved from the original version that debuted in the Aria. They are also, like everything I've ever tested from Focal, superbly made. Discussing the 'worth' of Hi-Fi once you sail past two grand or so is largely pointless but when you look at the materials, build and engineering at work here, you can understand where the money has gone.

The Kanta can image like almost nothing else in true Focal fashion. If your library gives them the chance to create a three dimensional space where the performers can strut their stuff, the Kanta No1 is exceptional - not just good at its lofty price point but a genuine benchmark. The speed and raw ability they possess is partnered with a willingness to have a really good time and ensure you do too. The Kanta No1 isn't simply 'fun' it's FUN and happy to tear through the most savage and high fidelity free recording you have and actually sound like it is enjoying itself. This is a worthy award winner.

Best Turntable Under £1,000 2019 Technics SL-1500C

The Technics SL-1500C is an unsuspended, direct drive turntable. It is designed to sit alongside the SL-1200 models (now a three strong range of Mk7, 1200GR and 1200G), using a similar motor assembly but with fewer pro/DJ features. The SL-1500C is the first of the new clutch of Technics turntables to come with a cartridge supplied and a phono stage built-in, ensuring it can simply be connected to any line input on an amp or receiver and off it goes. All the major points of contact feel beautifully made and reassuringly solid. Like the SL-1200GR I reviewed, the 1500C feels utterly non-artisanal and that puts it in a different category to almost any other device on the market at the price.

This is a head nodding sort of device at the best of times and give it something with a bit of oomph and the effect is consistently entertaining. It balances tonal realism with enough sweetness to make it very easy to listen to for extended sessions. It's good out the box and becomes great with a little work. It's well made, painless to live with and makes vinyl enjoyable. It's a very fine addition to the Technics range.

Best Turntable £1,000 And Over 2019 Rega Planar 8

The Rega Planar 8 is an unsuspended, belt drive turntable that replaces the long running and much loved RP8. While it is possible to recognise elements of the RP8 in the design, this a turntable that doesn't look like anything that has been done by them before. The Planar looks and feels like something from the Aerial Atom school of industrial design. The feel is important too. With so little of it in many places, it would have been an easy thing for the Rega to feel lightweight and insubstantial but it really doesn't. You can buy bigger and more ornate turntables for the same price but I don't know of much that feels more solid.

With large scale music, the Planar 8 is effortlessly open and three dimensional. The sound extends out beyond the speakers but does so without leaving any sense of a hole in the space between them. The entire performance of the Planar 8 is a demonstration of what vinyl can deliver as a format once you meet the required investment. There's no warmth or bloom to this - it's as warm as the recording and nothing more. This is a phenomenal turntable and one that makes a justifiable claim to being state of the art at the price point and it takes our award.

Best All-in-One Hi-Fi Under £1,000 2019 Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge

The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge is a self-contained wireless network speaker. Bowers & Wilkins clearly feels that in order to deliver on the promise of wireless multiroom, certain design aspects need to be very carefully addressed. It makes use of a pair of 1-inch 'Double dome' tweeters combined with a pair of 3.5-inch FST midrange drivers that are underpinned by a single 6-inch 'subwoofer.' The drivers have their own amplifiers, 40 watts apiece for the tweeters and midrange and 80W for the sub. It has no UPnP software of its own and neither has it any form of physical inputs at all, although the Formation range can be used to augment it. The proportions are well judged and the faceted front edge looks brilliant in both natural and artificial light. It's also superbly made and the set up procedure works like a charm.

Given the lossless feed from a streaming service, the Wedge is a genuinely excellent performer and one of the very best single chassis speakers I've listened to. The top end is entirely civilised without being dull and, while it does its best work with lossless material, compressed services also sound perfectly listenable. If you want to sit there, iPad in one hand and beverage of your choice in the other and meander through a streaming service for an evening, this is a great partner. If you are looking to buy a product solely with a view to interacting with it via your phone or tablet, I think the Wedge is the best of its kind.

Best All-in-One Hi-Fi £1,000 And Over 2019 Naim Mu-So 2nd Generation

The Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation is a self-contained wireless speaker and it is a visible and direct descendant of the original Mu-so that we reviewed in 2014. The format handling has also been improved slightly; the new version is now 24/384 capable with WAV, FLAC, ALAC and AIFF and supports DSD to 128 into the bargain. As such, there is very little in common circulation that the Naim won't handle natively. The new Mu-so still offers an optical and 3.5mm analogue stereo input but this has been augmented by an HDMI ARC connection. All of this functionality is now roped together with Naim's latest control interface which is now used across pretty much everything that the company makes. The proportions are sufficiently different from other Naim devices (and indeed most rivals) that it can still look odd in pictures but in the flesh, it works brilliantly.

The most significant difference the new Mu-So has over the original is that feeling of the processing that is at work to make a slimline box of drivers generate the spatial image that it does. In the original, the sense of it being there was omnipresent. You willingly accepted it because the sound on offer was larger, better defined and more recognisably stereo than a single speaker had a right to be but you still noticed it. Here, it's pretty much absent. The same effortlessly open and potent presentation is still here but now the only point of contention to it is your brain deciding that it can't really be coming from a single slimline box. As a combination of features, performance and aesthetics, the Naim is comfortably the best all-in-one we looked at this year.

Best Hi-Fi Amplifier Under £1,000 2019 Tangent Ampster BTII

The Tangent Ampster BT II is an integrated amp. At least, it is closer to an integrated amp than it is to anything else. the Tangent has the scope to do rather more than simply collate your analogue sources. With decoding and Bluetooth onboard, this little device has the potential to be quite content to work on its own, so long as you have a mobile phone and a streaming services account. Tangent has tried to cover most bases and fitted the Ampster BT II with two analogue inputs, one on a conventional RCA stereo connection and one a 3.5mm input. There is then an additional optical input and the aptX capable Bluetooth connection. These are supported by a subwoofer output and a USB-A connection. Everything is well made for the asking price, with the all-metal chassis feeling sturdy and well thought out.

The Tangent achieves one very important thing, streaming TIDAL from an aptX capable phone to the Ampster and a decent pair of affordable speakers (and you can take your pick from some real stars at the moment from £160 up) is enough to impart the suspension of disbelief. You stop listening to the equipment and enjoy the overall performance that results. If you can hunt down an example of the recently discontinued Chromecast Audio, it partners the Tangent like hollandaise does salmon. This is a complete and utter bargain that opens the way to take your stereo listening to wherever you want.

Best Hi-Fi Amplifier £1,000 And Over 2019 Musical Fidelity M6 500i

The Musical Fidelity M6 500i is an integrated amplifier and part of a range of M6 components. The most remarkable thing that you will note when looking at the amplifier specifications is it disposes of no less than 500 watts into an 8 ohm load. To create this hefty output, the M6 500i is effectively two mono channels and a preamp shoehorned into a single chassis. Each channel has its own (large) toroid to feed it and the preamp lives above them like a mezzanine. There's no magic at work here. You can recognise all the components you would in a more conventionally rated amplifier but they're all quite a bit bigger. The aesthetics of the M6 500i convey a very simple message and that message is 'I AM VERY POWERFUL.' In the black finish especially, it looks like it has been made from things that Musical Fidelity found in a storage hut behind Lockheed Martin.

What are the realities of using half a kilowatt? The keyword here is 'effortless.' The M6 500i can take any piece of music you can think of and deliver it with an eye opening lack of compression. Even when you were previously unaware of there being any curtailment to dynamics, the effect of applying the Musical Fidelity to the same music is still profound at times. It's akin to taking a filter out of the presentation and letting things breathe better. The operating envelope of the M6 500i is so enormous that for any (that's right, I'm using an absolute) domestic situation what you will get is exactly what is sent. This means that partnered with similarly capable components, you'd have a system that would be utterly accurate - a genuine 'window on the music.' It's one of the all-time great integrated amps and a shoe-in for the 2019 award.

Best Headphone Under £500 2019 Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT

The Technica ATH-M50xBT is a closed-back, over-ear headphone that can be used in either wired or wireless Bluetooth modes. The M50xBT is a new headphone but the M50x is not. This is a member of Audio Technica's affordable studio and DJ range and it is very much a wired product - neither studios nor clubs being terribly conducive to wireless use. Over time, it has developed something of a cult following though from people using their M50xs for all sorts of more domestic listening. Feedback suggested to Audio Technica that they wanted a wireless version, so here we are. The modifications to make it a Bluetooth headphone have not affected the external dimensions of the design in any way. This means that space for the controls, amps and battery has to be found in the original design. Neither is this a minimalist fit. You get Bluetooth v5.0 with both aptX and AAC support which means that the M50xBT will play as nice with iOS as it does with Android. There is also a microphone for making and receiving calls. This feels like an utterly dependable, rugged and unflappable piece of kit.

With your favourite streaming service playlist selected and your phone and M50xBT charged up, you can head off for a (very long) day out and the Audio Technica will do what it does very happily indeed. The noise isolation is extremely good, both at keeping the outside world at bay and ensuring that you don't leak much noise to the outside world. This, in turn, means you don't need to birch the volume too hard either - although if you push it, the M50xBT has an impressively large amount of headroom available. It is hard to overemphasise how good a job Audio Technica has done with the conversion to wireless operation. They've kept the character of the headphone intact, ensuring you get a presentation that is commendably faithful but entertaining with it. This is now combined with an absolutely brilliant Bluetooth implementation that gives them a clear and utterly stable connection that offers superb battery life and equally adept performance with iOS and Android. It's a complete and utter bargain and takes the award with ease.

Best Headphone £500 And Over 2019 AKG N5005

The AKG N5005 is an in-ear earphone and the flagship of the AKG in-ear range. The single biggest difference between the N5005 and most of its rivals is the cable fitment. The cable is interchangeable, meaning you can detach the wired jack type connectors and fit the AKG with a wireless yoke. This contains an amp and battery pack combined with a Bluetooth receiver. At a stroke, the N5005 gains functionality that no rival can easily replicate. The N5005 is a hybrid design, combining balanced armatures with a dynamic driver. This is fairly common in earphone terms but not usually at a price this high and not usually involving so many drivers. The configuration here is no less than four armatures underpinned by a single dynamic. It's also beautifully made. You can legitimately argue that making earphones a beautiful thing is not the simplest task going but the AKG manages to look understated and subtle and still go a long way to feeling it is worth the asking price.

By operating at the micro rather than macro level, earphones offer the potential to experience things that even conventional headphones can struggle with and the good news is that the AKG delivers on this in spades. What stitches this technical ability together is a simple level of musical joy that hasn't always been a part of the AKG sonic makeup. When you want audiophile, it does a fine job. When you simply want music delivered with a bit of vigour, it has you more than covered too. The AKG remains staggeringly good used in a wireless context too. What is no less important to remember is that if you have one of the clutch of modern phones with no headphone socket, the AKG is one of a tiny number of options that will keep working at all. As a combination of functionality and ability, it's one of the best things I tested all year.

Best Digital Hi-Fi Product Under £1000 2019 Roon

Roon is a piece of software that acts as collation and control for your ripped music library and it represents a step change over anything that goes before. Roon is available for PC and Mac with most current versions of Windows and OSX being supported. Once your own music is in and present, you can start to bring in other content too. If you are a TIDAL or Qobuz subscriber, you can add these details to Roon. Once you've done so, anything you have favourited in the dedicated apps (mobile or desktop) will be added to that existing Roon library. As a control device and browsing experience, Roon knocks most streamer control apps into a cocked hat. It's faster, slicker, far more capable and generally it's utterly stable into the bargain. The iPad app makes most one brand equivalent's feel like a child's IT project. It's expensive but you can see where the money has gone.

Let's deal with the important bit. Roon is expensive. It has the highest licensing costs of any such piece of software and this number keeps growing as streaming service subs and suitable hardware are added to the roster. You have to be pretty keen on your streaming audio to want to go this route. The reason for doing so is worth it, is because it is the standard by which all control software needs to be judged. Yes, it's expensive, yes, it's unlikely you'll wind up using all the features it can technically provide and yes, some more affordable rivals get reasonably close. They can't equal it though, which is why this magnificent piece of software takes the award.

Best Digital Hi-Fi Product £1000 And Over 2019 Naim Uniti Nova

The Naim Uniti Nova is the top tier of the three current members of the Uniti range and is designed to give a serious taste of Naim separate ownership in a more convenient form factor. Naim's argument is straightforward - in most normal rooms, the Nova shouldn't struggle with many speakers under £10,000 which, combined with the same feature list that wowed us with the Atom and the Star, makes for a very potent product indeed. The Nova is also built as well as the other Unitis which is to say, very well indeed.

The single most compelling way I can summarise the Naim is that listening to the Nova with your eyes closed, you would never twig that it is an all-in-one system by any aspect of the performance. This is a fearsomely capable, beautifully made, comprehensively specified statement of just how good an all-in-one system can potentially be. It makes the business of selling the virtues of separate systems - including Naim's own units - that much harder at yet another price point. It came within a hair's breadth of taking the Product of the Year award.

Best Newcomer In Digital Music 2019 Amazon Music HD

Amazon Music HD is an on-demand lossless and Hi-Res streaming service. Its arrival in the market suggests Amazon clearly feels that, after the best part of twenty years, audio quality is a mainstream argument and this effort is pointed firmly at more mass market rivals. While some features of the service are currently not as well developed as some of the competition, the most important aspect of Music HD is the price. Amazon pitches up with a hefty ninety-day free trial and a price that - if you elect to pay annually - is £10.75 a month, or 76p more than Spotify or Apple Music want for their MP3s. This is a huge statement of intent and one that, if Amazon genuinely does start achieving decent levels of third party integration, is surely going to make a difference.

The good news is that Amazon is competitive with the purebred audiophile competition. In fact, if my laptop is behaving itself and the USB management is allowing for the correct, unmolested version of the track being played to make it to the DAC, it's frequently, almost impossible to tell it apart from Qobuz or TIDAL. No less importantly, it behaves like the mainstream rivals when you aren't looking for absolute quality. More importantly than the performance though is what Music HD represents. This is the point where lossless audio become something pretty much guaranteed to survive in on demand streaming. For me - and I think for many of you reading too - that's a huge thing after years of compression. This is a big deal for the normalisation of quality, which is why it earns this award.

Hi-Fi Product Of The Year 2019 NAD M10

All too often, the two channel category can look reactionary and overtly traditional compared to developments elsewhere. The NAD M10 is a true exception to the rule. NAD took everything they know about streaming, Class D amps and the implementation of Dirac and combined it into a single chassis with all the connectivity you would expect (and some you wouldn't) to ensure you can make full use of it. The M10 is a truly exceptional piece of industrial design too. It is also very well made. The chassis is metal and feels solid and immaculately assembled. The speaker terminals and connections all have a heftiness and general robustness that is wholly encouraging. It isn't cheap but the NAD feels effortlessly special and it is a delight to use.

There is no sense in being coy summing up the M10. NAD's all-in-one doesn't so much arrive on the market as explode into it. It takes everything that the company has been quietly working on and wraps it in some of the nicest industrial design I've seen in years. The result is one of the most consistently outstanding performers I have tested in a very long time. It also disrupts the already shaken-up take on the value of components and systems too. This is the future of Hi-Fi and we absolutely love it.
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